John McLean - New Works ***
TALBOT RICE GALLERY, EDINBURGH
Ian Davenport ***
INGLEBY GALLERY, EDINBURGH
Pattison - Layers ****
GLASGOW PRINT STUDIO
‘Abstract", when you think about it, is a strange term to apply to art. After all, the word was originally a verb meaning "to draw out", "to separate". As the written introduction to the current John McLean exhibition points out, a dentist will "extract" a tooth, but he could just as well "abstract" it. It is sad that many art lovers find purely abstract art exhibitions as rewarding as pulling teeth. With our intellectual pliers and drills we believe that if we could just pull hard enough, or drill deep enough, we might find a system of explaining these pictures. We might find out, in other words, "what it means".
For though we are well acquainted in this country with the various representational traditions and increasingly with the mind-bending intellectualism of the conceptual, we don’t meet pure abstraction very often. So rare a breed is the abstract painter that he or she gets described as "tenacious" and "rigorous", as if representation is something you might fall into if you’re careless.
The pulling-teeth approach will fail with John McLean, one of this country’s few true abstractionists. His paintings can’t be "read". There is no hidden language in his palette of colours, no internal code in his menu of recurring shapes, no echoes of cultural history or ethnic lore. And though he is continually reminding us of his presence, boldly shaping and reshaping the forms with deft brushstrokes, neither is this about the artist’s mood. So the current show at Talbot Rice is confident and prolific - huge canvases downstairs, myriad works on paper upstairs - but ultimately difficult.
If it is "about" anything, it is about the paint itself, about the interplay of colours and shapes within each painting. This is what Miro described as collaboration between the artist and his means of expression. Some surfaces are shiny, almost brittle, others dense and clothy. Built up in layers, the paintings sometimes push objects out into the foreground, sometimes seem to probe inside them, digging into the plane of canvas. Semi-transparent strokes often allow colours beneath to seep through.
Though the shapes are static, there is often the suggestion of movement. One painting is named after a pipe tune, Black Bear. If there is a clue as to how to appreciate McLean, perhaps this is it. You don’t analyse a good tune, you dance to it. His works are to be enjoyed for their boldness, their exuberance, their sense of play and experimentation. Still, they make us uneasy. The tendency still is to search for a metaphor that bridges the gap between art and life, to impose a language on it so that it will speak to us. By refusing to play this game, McLean reminds us that art is not life, that the gap is not an easy one to bridge.
A musical analogy is also possible with the work of Ian Davenport. His "Circle" paintings, shiny panels with a circle picked out on each, are even reminiscent of record decks. But if McLean’s dancing shapes are something of a Scottish jig, Davenport’s circles are the pumping rhythms of a nightclub punctuated by samples of Saturday Night Fever.
A graduate of Goldsmiths in the late 1980s, Davenport took part in Damien Hirst’s seminal Freeze exhibition in 1988. He featured prominently in the recent Days Like These Tate Triennial, but this is his first show in a commercial gallery in Scotland. Though his practice is more consistent than some of his contemporaries, he is best understood within the conceptual movement. Like many conceptualists, he has invested as much importance in the process of making the work than in the finished result. It is almost a performance. The "Circle" works are made by pouring paint onto a primed surface to create a circle. Then the board is tilted, or flipped, pancake-style, so that the paint runs off. This process is then repeated in the original priming colour, producing a second circle which stops a whisker shy of the first.
Also, in common with other conceptualists, there is almost no limit to the dialogue one can have about these works. One can talk about Davenport’s palette of colours, drawn from urban life, from cars and neon lights and the lipstick counter at Boots, or his choice of mass market materials - household gloss paint and MDF. One can talk about how the mass-produced appearance of the work belies the fact that it is crafted, the success hingeing on a brief second of precise movement; that they are untouched by the artist’s hand, yet the product of meticulous planning. One can talk about their reflectiveness, that in their surfaces one sees not only the other works in the gallery but yourself caught in the act of looking. Herein, perhaps, lies the problem. Could it be that the dialectic around the work is more interesting than the works themselves?
Two works on paper, produced by letting paint run down over paper pinned to a gallery wall, reminiscent of the wall he created in Days Like These, differ in texture and tone. While exploring similar ground, the interplay of accident and choice, they are rather beautiful, and perhaps deserve a better space in the Ingleby than the entrance hall. However, the exhibition as a whole leaves one with the impression that Davenport has discovered the ground he likes and is simply retreading it in different colours. What he gains from repeating the process is more obvious to him than to us.
Not so the work of Jim Pattison at Glasgow Print Studio who, emerging from a period of ill health with renewed vigour, has produced a remarkable wide-ranging show that engages energetically with a series of artistic questions. The "Layers" of the title apply not just to the way these works were constructed but to the various levels on which they can be experienced.
Many of these works approach, through a variety of media, tensions between order and disorder, structure and spontaneity. In the Forms series, highly precise geometrical shapes seem to emerge from organic backgrounds. In Violet Form, a bright geometrical star slides out from among entwined leaves and grass. A visual contrast - or is it? After all, natural things can be expressed mathematically, from a blade of grass to a strand of DNA.
There is an autobiographical reading of these works, the contrast between the disorder brought on by kidney failure and the rigorous pattern of four-times-daily dialysis, that pattern giving way in turn to renewed freedom following a kidney transplant. Though he uses computers to explore his three-dimensional geometrical images, ultimately Pattison affirms the value of the artist producing the final works in oils with the tiny imperfections this necessitates. But as he blossoms in confidence, he increasingly mixes media with interesting results.
The Portpatrick series, which is digitally produced, seems to sculpt the sky itself using photo manipulation. And, most interestingly, the Madrid series combines old and new media, digital technology and woodcut. Though based on a visit to the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid, the rich layering evokes other spaces, glimpses through an Islamic-patterned screen into a Spanish courtyard where lights flicker and voices murmur on the edge of hearing. In these, he has achieved what the abstractionist sometimes forget: without compromising on rigour, he has left a door open for the viewer’s imagination.
• John McLean runs until 13 December, Ian Davenport until 20 December and Jim Pattison until 24 December. Duncan Macmillan is away.